AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
Woke historians have now have now consigned post-World War II America to the dustbin of cancellation, but the 50th Anniversary of Walt Disney World provides us a moment to reflect on how Americans thought of the dark spots in our history with honesty and maturity, long before the age of the woke. Americans have always been a sunny people not because we deny the evil in our past, but because we also remember working to overcome so many aspects of it.
Political historian Bethanee Bemis, in an article on the 50th anniversary of the opening of Disney World in Orlando, Florida, celebrates Disney’s great Awokening in the theme park. Good-bye “boys and girls”; Disney now nods to the left’st vision of infinite “genders” and addresses children as “friends.” Hello displays dedicated to gay bakers! Yet there is much work to do, according to Ms. Bemis. Good-bye to rides and displays that did not hew to the most up-to-date notions of political correctness in matters of race, sex, and gender. Gone is the “bride auction” scene from Pirates of the Caribbean for fear one might think Disney was promoting sex-trafficking. Gone is the Aunt Jemima Pancake House—despite the fact that Aunt Jemima was a real person whose story is quite amazing.
Bemis’s article is the predictable sort of thing we see every day now. What was wrong with Disney World and Disney movies in the bad old days? The woke left’s answer is that they were simply “reassuring” middle-class white people that nothing was wrong in America and that they did not have to deal with “diversity” or any bad parts of our history. And yet, the evidence to refute this notion is found in Disney heritage itself. It’s there in the post-war phenomenon of “Davy Crockett mania,” created largely by Walt Disney himself, providing a perfect example of the way in which Americans understood the difficulties of native peoples in America.
Walt Disney created a five-part black-and-white television series that aired in 1954 and 1955 called Davy Crockett that starred actor Fess Parker, usually attired in coonskin hat and Buddy Ebsen (later of Beverly Hillbillies fame as Jed Clampett) as Crockett’s friend George Russell. It featured “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” the incredibly catchy song with music by George Bruns and lyrics by Thomas W. Blackburn that was recorded by Bill Hayes and sold over eleven million records. Disney later used the color film of the series to create two movies, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). Every kid in America wanted a Davy Crockett lunch box and a coonskin cap like Davy’s.
And well they ought to have. The real-life Crockett (1786-1836) was a frontiersman, soldier, and politician who represented Tennessee in the House of Representatives and fought in the Texas Revolution, dying at the Alamo. His own record as a legislator was one of unfailing honesty and integrity, part of which got him knocked out of politics and inspired one of the greatest scenes in the Disney series.
Crockett’s national legislative career, begun in 1827, was noteworthy for his fight for the American settlers and his attacks on institutions he felt were not of benefit to ordinary people. He promoted legislation helping settlers get titles to their land more easily and he introduced legislation to abolish the U. S. Military Academy at West Point due to his belief that it was only providing positions for the rich—and thus was not actually a public use of money. But it was his opposition to the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which authorized President Andrew Jackson to negotiate the removal of native tribes west of the Mississippi in order for white settlers to take over their lands, which marks a high moral point in his career and was marvelously portrayed by Parker in Disney’s series.
That scene had what was likely the first political speech many kids ever heard. Crockett returns to Congress to convince the body to vote against it. After punching out an aide to Jackson who tells him not to “commit political suicide,” Crockett dramatically enters the chambers and tells his fellow Congressmen that though he is for expansion as much as anybody, he wants the country “to grow up into the nation the good Lord meant it to be.” Expansion should indeed happen, but “not at the expense of the things this country was meant to protect.” Crockett goes on: “The government’s promises set out in the Indian treaties is as sacred as your own word. Expansion ain’t no excuse for persecuting a whole part of our people because their skin is red and they’re uneducated to our ways. And expansion ain’t no excuse for takin’ Indian lands that was guaranteed to them.”
The speech is stirring. Crockett does, however, suffer a temporal defeat. In real life, as in the movie, he was the only Tennessee Congressman to vote against the bill, which did pass and was signed into law by Andrew Jackson. Though he earned the thanks of the Cherokee chief in a letter, because of his vote, which was unpopular in his home state, Crockett lost in the next electoral cycle in 1831.
Yet the episode is depicted in the series as a triumph of sorts for America. Even if a wrong was done, Crockett’s recognition of the wrong and resolute defense of the right was a moral victory for himself and the country. The show didn’t teach Americans to hate their country, but instead to cherish the good that was in it that would eventually overcome the abuse of the Indians. These problems—like those with the slavery that contradicted the promise of the Declaration that all men are created equal—might have brought other countries to their knees, but Americans fought through them to better ways of life. The depictions of Disney and other artists reflected this mature, sober, and yet optimistic vision that would motivate a generation to act to make America worthy of her original promise.
Post-war America knew that we had done wrong as a country by the Indians. John Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers similarly depicted the wrongs done by white settlers as well as their racial hostility in ways that shocked people. Ford spoke to the complex and sometimes ugly reality of his depiction in a 1964 interview: “If [the Indian] has been treated unfairly by whites in films, that, unfortunately, was often the case in real life. There was much racial prejudice in the West.”
There is no doubt that not every film or story handled things in a perfectly honest way. There is also no doubt that Hollywood executives did not always treat Native American actors fairly. Hollywood has long been a place of tremendous rhetoric about the good that does not match its own patterns of behavior—just take a look at the #MeToo movement, designed to take out Trump and Republicans, but mostly hitting Hollywood figures and their left-liberal allies. But the story of Native Americans is one of many aspects of our country’s history that was indeed handled by many in our post-war world with honesty.
Woke historians such as Bemis lack any nuance when they look at older views of America. They do not see how the Davy Crockett series or the films of John Ford and others presented a thrilling view of America that thrilled precisely because it did not pretend there were no dark spots on the part of Americans or their government. They instead see only darkness before the age of Woke (ca. 2010). Alas, they do not understand the dynamics of this process themselves. What they consider cutting edge will soon be on the cutting floor as ever new shibboleths are devised to separate those on “the right side of history” from those who are deplorable. Better instead to hew to the vision of the Founders that emphasized the natural law and natural rights by which any country can be judged.
America is a country that is not immaculate in its history. Several original sins mar our history. But the reason we love our country is not because we imagine it free of sin. It was never so then or now. The last fifty years have seen us lamenting the scourge of a laissez-faire approach to abortion that has seen over 50 million children in the womb taken away. We love America because of the many evils that have been remedied and the desire that the ones with which we are still burdened will similarly be taken away. This is expressed in the marvelous second stanza of “America the Beautiful,” which concludes:
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.